Often at Holy Cross School where I'm working now I watch over the learners while they play before and after school and while they take their break in the day. A group of the grade 2 girls in particular has taken to hanging around me during these times. As we have gotten closer they've become more curious and questioning. This last week they've become interested in my hair which is so different from theirs. So I let them touch it and they try to make it look nice.
And then one of the girls made a comment that took me by surprise. She said that she liked my hair and that it was much nicer than hair like hers. Hearing this caught me off guard at first, and then made me sad and then made me reflect on issues similar that I have encountered in the United State and Burundi. (I have not been in South Africa long enough to comment on whether or not this is true here as well.)
In the United States beauty, power, and knowledge are associated with whiteness generally. In Burundi as well, white people are associated with these attributes. White women are often proposed to, asked for money, asked for help in obtaining a visa, etc. White people are given places of honor despite their being no reason behind this honor other than the fact that they are white and assumed to be of high importance and honor.
Some white people interpret this as welcoming or as curiosity about something foreign. But this was one of the most uncomfortable parts of living abroad for me. Not only that it put me in a position I was uncomfortable with, but what does it mean for those who are not in this 'honored' position? It sets an image that says that continues the colonial images and thoughts that white people are superior to black people.
America and Europe and made out to be these places of higher intelligence, wealth, and civility. In the United States black people are told from a young age by our society that these things are harder for them to achieve because of their blackness, and that it is something typical of white society.
But this has a negative impact not just on the individual but in the structure of a community. "If a young child is constantly taught that Europe is the pinnacle of civilization and that all good ideas came out of England, came out of France, came out of Germany, [...] they're not going to look within their own community and within themselves to see greatness. They're going to look outside of their community and aspire to that."
I believe that this is true as well for the way that people perceive beauty in themselves. Again, I don't know about the dynamics of these things in South Africa yet. But I have had similar experiences in the United States and Burundi. Where girls assume that sleek hair is more beautiful than kinky hair. Why do we continue to teach this?
In the documentary Dark Girls, one of the people in the film gives the following quote which I think speaks a lot to this issue. (If you haven't seen this documentary it is about the differential experiences of dark-skinned and light-skinned girls in the United States. I think it does a good job of looking at this issue from a number of different angles.)
When you think of the overall physical body every single cell has its own unique purpose and function. And so if in this example a dark-skinned woman were the eyes and a light-skinned woman was the ear drum, why would the eyes work so hard to be the eardrum? And would it make sense for the eardrum to try to become the eyes? Its just important to be who you are and when you begin to acknowledge that, and begin to acknowledge that the experiences that you had have brought you to a particular point in your life where you have so much to give, and to contribute, you have so much to learn, then you can start really accepting and being certain and just own who you are.